For goodness sake, reciprocate?

Let’s consider the ethics involved in giving someone a life-extending organ – and then demanding for it to be returned:  a US man divorcing his wife is demanding that she returns the kidney he donated to her, or pay him $1.5m in compensation. (BBC)  Apparently, the two married in 1990 and he donated a kidney to her in 2001. She filed for divorce in 2005 and a settlement has still not been reached. In addition, he claims that he was prevented from seeing their 3 children ‘for extended periods.’ According to the Times Online, he also accuses his wife of rejecting him and of being unfaithful. Frustrated, he says, he went public, demanding his kidney back. Alternatively, he will settle for the market value of a kidney.  According to divorce lawyers, says the BBC piece, “a donated organ is not a marital asset to be divided.” 

A quick digression: legally, this makes for a captivating court-flick: She could argue, for example, that the court should throw out the case because if it accepts it and finds against her, she’ll have to return the kidney or pay the amount requested by the husband. If she returns the kidney she might die, meaning that the court passed what amounts to a (potential) death-penalty – a harsh judgment in a divorce case. If she can’t pay the amount requested – will the court instruct the sheriff to attach her kidney? I can see George Clooney arguing the case for a fragile but defiant  Diane Lane while Ben Kingsley (the husband) is represented by the philosophical Michael Caine – hey, let’s put in a few extra bob and get Dame Helen to play the judge! 

Why people do good deeds?  

There are four widely contested and debated answers to this question.  The first answer argues that people tend to be altruistic (that is – to do something good without expecting any reward) when it is closer to their hearts: the husband was more likely to give a kidney to his wife than to a stranger. Then, once she became a stranger – he claimed it back.  The second answer is that humans have a natural ability to perform deontic reasoning (according to Wikipedia, deontological ethics “is an approach […] that focuses on the rightness.”) Those who support the deontic view argue that we have an inherent need to do what is right. 

The third view comes from Evolutionary Psychology. Leda Cosmides & John Tooby, acknowledged EP gurus, have this to say about their subject matter: according to Evolutionary Psychology “[…] the mind is a set of information-processing machines that were designed by natural selection to solve adaptive problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors.” In other words — answer three puts forward the thinking that the give-me-back-my-kidney husband acts on evolutionary behavioural impulses that determined that it was OK to give the kidney to his wife and that it is just as OK to claim it back. No morality, no ethics, no altruism or reciprocity.  Note that the wife can use the very same argument to explain why it was OK to accept the kidney from her husband and why it is still OK to send him packing.

Lastly, there is the view that as people do good deeds they keep a keen eye on the recipient (or target) of their action. Should the benefits be unfavorable – no more good deeds will be forthcoming. This is known as a reciprocity-dependant deed. The husband’s kidney donation was clearly based on the premise that the recipient was the donor’s grateful, faithful, favourably reciprocal partner. Once the partner failed to deliver on that premise – the husband demanded that his gift be returned. Does this mean that altruism cannot be based on reciprocity? Yes, says the wife, no-ways, says the husband. 

In chapter 16 of his masterwork The Prince (Written c. 1505, published 1515), Italian diplomat, political philosopher, musician, poet and playwright Niccolo Machiavelli talks about Liberality (generosity) and Meanness (thriftiness, miserliness) – being generous, says the great Mac, is wonderful, and will make one popular, for a while. However, soon the ‘Prince’ will run out of money and will need to tax his people in order to maintain his financial strength. This, in turn, will make him extremely unpopular.  “Therefore, a prince […] if he is wise he ought not to fear the reputation of being mean, for in time he will come to be more considered than if liberal.” 

Elsewhere I ToingToing’ed Robert Axelrod’s book The Evolution of Cooperation and the sequel Complexity of Cooperation; both fascinating investigations of reciprocity vs. altruism or, as Axelrod defines it defection vs. cooperation.  Having studied an iterative game called the Prisoner’s Dilemma; Axelrod concludes that cooperation is a better strategy to use than defection. Of course, being a strategy, cooperation is done without any notion of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – ‘ethical’ or ‘unethical’.  In Axelrod’s world all one is concerned with is some final outcome. 

Last word on reciprocity: In the Analects it is told that, when asked for a single word that one can use to run his/her entire life, Confucius said that the word is reciprocity “what you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others”. In the book of Matthew [7:12] it is said “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” 

Is there a difference between the two ‘doctrines’, as far as reciprocity goes? 

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